The Deviant Strain
|ISBN||0 563 48637 6|
|Synopsis: The Novrosk Peninsula: the Soviet naval base has been abandoned, the nuclear submarines are rusting and rotting. Cold, isolated, forgotten. Until the Russian Special Forces arrive and discover that the Doctor and his companions are here too. But there is something else in Novrosk. Something that predates everything else, even the stone circle on the cliff top. Something that is at last waking, hunting, killing. Can the Doctor and his friends stay alive long enough to learn the truth?|
A Review by Finn Clark 6/2/06
The bottom line: it's very good. It's trying to be a mindless little thriller rather than anything thoughtful or literary, but there's nothing wrong with that. Novels aren't the natural medium for kinetic action, yet Justin Richards has crafted a breakneck potboiler that measures up to most action movies. It's exciting. It's gripping. It's not going to please those who are still grumbling about the demise of rich and intelligent full-length novels from BBC Books, but frankly that policy started in 2002 and it's a bit late to start grumbling about it now. (Admittedly since that date we've had a couple of books worth seeking out, but this was a regrettable breach of policy for which the BBC's commissioning editors publicly apologised and promised to clamp down firmly to avoid further such outbreaks.)
In one sense it's Justin on autopilot. He's returning to an old stamping ground again... he's always liked the 1890s but he's lately become fond of Russia. Time Zero went exploring there, The Clockwise Man talked about the Tsars and the Bolsheviks and now The Deviant Strain takes us to post-communist Russia in all its run-down starvation level non-glory. It's a vividly realised setting and far more evocative than Steve Lyons's The Stealers of Dreams. It's not hard to pack a punch when you're talking about grimly fatalistic Russians plodding through their dreary hopeless lives in the middle of bloody nowhere. And that's just the backdrop! It's a powerful setting which sustains its characterisation even when the man-eating blobs show up. From some authors this would have become lurid nonsense, but The Deviant Strain never flags. It's one part Dostoyevsky and two parts John Carpenter's The Thing.
The plotting is brutally efficient. There's nothing to tickle the intellect, but there's plenty of death, backstory and plot developments. The pages fly past. Many authors have vied for the title of "the new Terrance Dicks" (something peculiar appears to have happened to the original), but Justin is perhaps the ultimate embodiment of all those old Target virtues. Slick, professional, fast-moving and churned out in a couple of days... it's an honourable tradition.
The TARDIS crew doesn't work for me and I blame Captain Jack Harkness. I'm coming to the conclusion that he's not well suited to books, or at least not to books like this. On TV the character is rarely more than skin-deep, instead riding on John Barrowman's screen presence and two kinds of jokes: (1) jokes about sex or (2) jokes about a 51st century time agent's reactions to the Doctor's unprofessionalism. He's entertaining, but the whole point is that he's a traditional SF action hero shoehorned into the Eccleston TARDIS. He's juvenile, almost adolescent, in a way that could look crass on the page without the spin of an actor's delivery. In these books so far he's falling flat and it's hurting the whole TARDIS crew. I have hopes for Gareth Roberts, but even those aren't the highest since this batch of books was written before John Barrowman's TV episodes aired and one can hardly expect profound insights into the character.
Oh, and he has amnesia. Or to use the technical term: "bloody amnesia". On TV they can get away with this, but in a book it's yet another barrier to any kind of deeper look at the character.
I have a couple of grumbles. The psychic paper and Bad Wolf are getting old fast. I wasn't wild about the former on TV, but at least they didn't hammer it into the ground. It's cropping up a little too often in these books. Meanwhile all those Bad Wolf references have stopped being clever and mysterious now we've seen The Parting of the Ways. Had the books continued using the 9th Doctor, I could see those words becoming the Eccleston equivalent of "Sam Sam Sam Sam Sam" in the 8DAs, i.e. the spawn of Satan.
Overall, this is more impressive than its detractors will admit. It's an action thriller that's genuinely exciting, which is nearly as difficult to write as a horror novel that's actually scary instead of just gross. These things are always subjective, but I thought this book knows what it's trying to do and succeeds. Justin Richards's first 9DA, The Clockwise Man, was heavily flawed, but here he's returned to form. A good quick read.
A Review by John Seavey 26/4/06
To the unambitious, assembling a Doctor Who story must seem a bit like baking a cake. You take your ingredients (isolated setting, mysterious things "not of this world", sympathetic characters, villains ready to take advantage of whatever evil it is this time, weird and horrific side effect that will provide the first "clue"), add the Doctor and companions, and keep writing until the bodies have piled up enough to give the kiddies a good scare and the Doctor solves everything. No greater theme, no particular message, just a mystery that needs solving and a Time Lord who likes poking his nose in where it doesn't belong.
As The Deviant Strain shows, it's shameful how readable an unambitious Doctor Who story can be. Because it is very readable. The Doctor, Rose, and Jack are entertaining to watch as they go through their paces; Russian troops make decent enough sympathetic characters; the mystery unfolds at a pace that keeps you turning the pages; the monsters are sufficiently lethal and terrifying to keep you engaged. The book chugs along nicely enough through its entire length that you'll probably polish it off quite quickly without even noticing where the time's gone. It's not going to stick in anyone's memory, but neither does Horror of Fang Rock, and that's a fun story too.
On the whole, a decent enough read if your expectations aren't too high.
Baby It's Cold Outside by Joe Briggs-Ritchie 7/9/07
Well, what can I say? How about that it's entertaining enough while it lasts? Yes, probably. Justin Richards' novels are always very readable and thoroughly entertaining and The Deviant Strain is no different. He does a very good job of evoking the setting with references to the Russian Revolution, everyone being scared of the powers that be in Moscow and vodka all round. If you like stories that are fogbound, snowbound etc then you should find this very satisfying.
This is essentially just a reworking of Mr Richards' estimable work Option Lock. Let's see; a crashed, hidden spaceship, the mind of the occupant of said spaceship survivng on and influencing people around him, energy being drained in order to get the spaceship up and running again, a secret group of people who are being influenced and working in secret for decades, nuclear missiles... See what I mean? The aliens may not be called Khameirians this time around but you get my point. In fact, I thought for a while that the aliens were going to turn out to be the Rutans. Come on, admit it, I bet you thought the same didn't you?
The characters are all appropriately Russian. They drink vodka, they moan about how hard life is and they are all terrified of their leaders in Moscow. The word 'stereotype' is leaping rather enthusiastically to mind. Oh well, never mind. One thing that did have me completely baffled though is that the Doctor and Jack both take a swim in the docks. This is northern Russia. Winter is fast approaching. The water is frozen. And they take a swim. Yes, it's ridiculous isn't it? They'd be dead in minutes. Well, Jack certainly would. Let's not forget that this adventure takes place prior to his becoming immortal. Realism Justin, realism.
Enjoy it while it lasts. It's not perfect but it passes the time quite pleasantly enough.
A Review by Robert Thomas 8/12/09
This is my first dip into the Ninth Doctor books and it feels very much more like a TV tie in than the books we had while the series wasnt on TV. The books seem to have gone for a vaguely novella style: while the page count is the norm, the font is quite large. Justin Richards has gone for a fairly action-orientated book which means as soon as the location and characters are introduced it's straight into the action.
An alien SOS signal draws the TARDIS to an isolated village and naval base in Russia. Mysterious deaths have occurred which have drawn the attention of the military who join up with the Doctor and co. The tension is soon raised as the obligatory monsters arrive resulting in more deaths as the bodycount rises. The problems of the book arrive as we get into the second half as it tends to get samey as characters are chased by 'blobs' for the most part. But if you plough through the second half in a single sitting this isn't much of a problem.
This is my first taste of this Doctor in print and this medium suits him well. The lonely survivor of the time war who doesn't let people get close to him fits in well amoungst the isolated community and scientists. Rose is shown to be quite brave and a good amount of action and characterisation. However, Capatain Jack stands out the most. He's given a good bit of depth considering his character is 90% actor's charisma. He manages to hold the majority of the action when the Doctor gets on with investigating.
To sum up, it's a fairly light book that you'll whizz through in a few sittings. Nice characterisation and a good bit of action, although it does get samey. I'd have preferred a bit more oomph and bite which would have raised the book above 'standard'. Although, as it is, it's a solid little read.